EAST LANSING, Mich. – When Michigan State beat Iowa last season, the Spartans led 31-7 at halftime.
That kind of fast start has been nowhere to be found lately.
Michigan State hasn't led after two quarters in more than a month, but the Spartans will try to reverse that trend Saturday when they host the Hawkeyes in a crucial matchup in the Big Ten's Legends Division. Iowa is one of two teams in the division that hasn't dropped a conference game yet.
Michigan State rallied from an early deficit to beat Indiana last weekend, but it was a struggle. The Spartans trailed 17-0 after one quarter before winning 31-27.
"What is in the past is past. We'll try to change things up — all I can tell you is we'll try to change things up," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I thought our football team was ready to play. I think Indiana had something to do with that — snapped the ball every 12 seconds. We got gassed. When you get gassed, things are not going to happen and we became disoriented."
That wasn't the only game in which Michigan State (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) looked out of sorts early. The Spartans trailed 14-3 at halftime in a loss to Notre Dame last month, and a week after that, they were losing 7-3 to Eastern Michigan after two quarters before coming back to win 23-7.
The season began in East Lansing with Rose Bowl aspirations, but it's hard to get a sense of where Michigan State stands in a jumbled league race that's still taking shape.
"Everywhere in America right now, every college football team feels a sense of urgency," Dantonio said. "We've always felt a sense of urgency. If we were 6-0 or 5-1, there would still be a sense of urgency. If you look, somebody's gaining on you, and that's sort of the way it is. You know you need to stay ahead of everything."
The Iowa game hasn't been all that close either of the last two seasons. In 2010, the Hawkeyes won 37-6, handing Michigan State its only loss of that regular season. Last year, Michigan State jumped way ahead early and won 37-21.
Iowa (3-2, 1-0) opened conference play with a 31-13 win over Minnesota two weekends ago. The Hawkeyes are coming off an open date and are tied with Michigan atop the division — but they also lost last month to Central Michigan, a team Michigan State throttled 41-7.
Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell has run for 776 yards on 171 attempts — he's just 11 carries shy of last season's total.
"He's a very big guy and a powerful guy, yet he's mentally talented," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "If you break down at all and somebody misses a gap to break down that kind of thing, he can really hurt you, and he can run with some speed too."
Iowa may have found its own impressive running back in Mark Weisman, whose 217-yard performance was overshadowed in the loss to Central Michigan. He ran for 156 yards in the first half alone against Minnesota, and he'll have some help on Saturday since the starter he replaced, Damon Bullock, is back after missing nearly three games with a head injury.
Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg has completed 58.5 percent of his passes.
The Spartans are expected to be without tight end Dion Sims because of a sprained ankle, and Michigan State's receivers have struggled at times.
"It's no secret that injuries happen. It's no secret that sometimes people lose their spots and people get shuffled around," quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. "You never hope for these things to happen or plan on these things happening, but everybody has been a part of the season where these things have happened and you have to adjust."
Michigan State freshman Aaron Burbridge caught eight passes for 134 yards against Indiana in an increased role.
"Just like they got outplayed in the first half, they flipped it around in the second half and did what they needed to do to be successful," Ferentz said. "And the other scary element of the deal is they had a freshman receiver step up and do some good things. Got to be a good feeling for them, I think."